While others described the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of “surges” and “waves,” Dr. Robert Kim-Farley M.P.H. ’75, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, called it a “viral tsunami.” But Kim-Farley, whose career has spanned the most renowned public health institutions, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the World Health Organization, sees hope on the horizon in the form of the COVID-19 vaccines. As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we wanted to know:

How do we protect against — and hopefully prevent — the next pandemic?

Kim-Farley: It’s clear we must have a message that is unified and embraces the policies of prevention and preparedness. We had such systems in place after catastrophes like 9/11 and health crises such as SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome]. There were billions of dollars allocated toward strategic stockpiles for bioterrorism preparedness, for instance, but in California, it was costing some $6 million a year to maintain. As those funds dwindled, the materials were sold or given away.

For prevention, it’s important to have a robust system of early detection, and a keen eye on diseases that may occur when human-animal interface is common, which was indicated with COVID, SARS and MERS. With a system in place, you can have a rapid response while the spread of the virus is still limited, as opposed to its becoming a pandemic.

Public-private partnerships are also important so we have the gear on hand and the ability to rapidly produce what we need. Once we get to the point that some 70% to 85% of the community is vaccinated, it creates the phenomenon where there are enough people who are immune that the virus cannot find people to infect. COVID then becomes a rare disease, and we can go back to what life was like in the pre-COVID era.

As for behaviors, we will still need to practice physical distancing and masking, even as more of us become vaccinated, until we achieve full community immunity. And I think mask-wearing will become more culturally acceptable. Indeed, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it has become a very long and ugly tunnel.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s April 2021 issue.